A Brief Reply to Gerald McDermott's Article, "Will All Be Saved?"

In a recent article (“Will All Be Saved?” Themelois 38.2, Aug 2013) Gerald McDermott offers a helpful introduction to and critique of evangelical universalism. I am pleased that evangelical scholars are beginning to pay attention to EU, even if with the intention of defusing it.

The first section of the article offers what is, on the whole, a fair and balanced presentation of what universalists believe and for that I am grateful. It then moves into critique in part 2. I have no intention of engaging it in depth but I have a few off-the-top-of-my-head reflections.

1. History
I said that the first section was “on the whole” fair. My slight hesitation was that I felt that the “brief history of universalism” section underplayed universalism in the early church (as Ilaria Ramelli’s forthcoming Brill volume on apokatastasis will demonstrate) and misrepresented the Orthodox position. On the most generous interpretation it is gross hyperbole to claim that until the 1970s the Orthodox rejected universalism and that since then only two Orthodox theologians (Kallistos Ware and Hilarion Alfeyev) begun to call for a revised view.

2. Freewill
McDermott mentions Tom Talbott’s argument against the freewill defence of hell. His objection is as follows:
“Talbott’s argument from God’s love to universal salvation problematically assumes that all people will freely respond positively to God’s love. Why should we accept this assumption?”
My problem with this is that Talbott does not assume that all people will freely respond positively to God’s love; he goes to great lengths to build a good case for believing that they will. Now I appreciate that McDermott does not have the space in which to engage with those arguments but it is more honest to simply admit this and to point readers to a place that they can find the issues discussed in more depth. (Jerry Walls, who McDermott cites, is Tom’s best critic on this issue so pointing readers to his work is the way to go.) It is very misleading to claim that Talbott simply assumes that we’ll all choose to embrace God’s love in Christ. To then conclude that “The philosophical . . . underpinnings of universalism do not survive careful scrutiny” simply adds insult to injury. That claim is not a conclusion to McDermott’s scrutiny of the philosophical underpinnings of universalism but is simply an unsupported assertion. To repeat, I am not objecting to McDermott taking the line he does (though I consider it mistaken) but I do object to his complete failure to engage the case he is rejecting.

As an aside, it is worth pointing out that while McDermott’s appeal to the arguments of Jerry Walls will be of help to Arminian evangelicals it will yield no benefit for Calvinists. Calvinists share with Tom Talbott the belief that God can bring it about that all people freely accept the gospel.

2. Divine Attributes
McDermott accuses universalists of abstracting divine attributes from each other (love and justice) and then prioritizing love over all at the expense of justice. Worse still we replace the biblical vision of divine love with a sentimentalist one.

Here I think that McDermott is simply wrong.

First, it is very important to my theological case for universalism that we should NOT pull asunder the divine attributes. We insist that God is holy love; that his love is just and his justice loving. We resist all attempts to pull apart love and justice and that is a key theological reason for rejecting eternal torment views of hell (because they cannot be squared with holy love). (Indeed, for my sins, I am an old-style theist and I believe that God is "simple" — i.e., not composed of parts — and so no division of divine attributes is possible for me.)

Indeed, to my mind the problem with classical evangelicalism is that it is in danger of doing the very thing McDermott accuses universalists of — namely, dividing the divine nature. Traditional evangelical risk setting God’s love and justice up in conflict when they see hell as a manifestation of divine justice but not divine love. We, on the contrary see hell as a manifestation of holy love. Justice? Yes. Wrath? Yes. But also love.

Second, my notion of divine love is most certainly not sentimental. I try in the book to carefully develop an understanding of divine love that is shaped by the biblical narrative, climaxing in Christ. Indeed, I argue that divine love is compatible with eschatological wrath so I am a little perplexed as to how that can be seen as a sentimental view of love.

3. Scripture
On the biblical material McDermott simply repeats the traditional approach to eschatological judgment texts (quoting some good authorities en route) and does not discuss the hermeneutic I employ when I read those texts. So what we find in the article is not so much a response to universalist arguments as a simple restatement of the mainstream view. Thus I am not sure how to reply to his arguments other than to point readers to the book so they can decide for themselves whether or not they find my theological hermeneutic helpful.

However, I would make mention of a couple of somewhat frustrating failures to engage my argument.

First, regarding the book of Revelation. I devoted several thousand words making what I still think is a pretty good case for a universalist reading of Revelation. McDermott’s section on Revelation simply ignores that case (perhaps, to be fair to him, for reasons of limitations of space) and presents Revelation as an unqualified problem for universalists.

Second, his response to universalist readings of Philippians 2 is built on the importance of reading it in the light of Isaiah 45. But I argue in my book that it is precisely when one does this that the universalist case is strengthened. Now, I may be mistaken but simply ignoring my arguments and writing as if universalists have not thought to take Isaiah 45 into account is, at very least, misleading.

I do understand that the word count limitations on an article like this are severe and that one cannot consider every argument. Fair enough. However, one should at very least indicate to readers that matters are more complex and that universalist arguments more sophisticated than space permits us to explore. Sure, we may add (to reassure our traditional readers) that universalists are still demonstrably wrong, but we do not serve our readers if we leave them with the impression that universalists have not attempted to engage some of these arguments in some depth. (All that said, I know that I too am sometimes guilty of this very sin and so I will slink off with my head hung low. Preacher heal thyself!)

4. Mission
My main frustration is with the conclusion. Here we discover that universalism is dangerous. Why? Because our new secular context calls for a new evangelization of the West. Agreed. Why does universalism problematize that call? Because “the new evangelization for the conversion of the world will founder if Christians believe that there is no need for conversion.”

Hold on! Who said anything about no need for conversion? Certainly no evangelical universalist (the supposed subject of the article) ever did. And looking at his references I see that McDermott has read a book and two articles in which I argue as clearly as I can that evangelical universalism need NOT undermine mission and evangelism. What does McDermott think of my arguments? I have no idea because he simply ignores them. And what is the empirical basis of his case that universalism is bad news for mission? Twentieth-century liberal Protestants. But he knows that the universalism of such folk is a very different breed of universalism from the kind that I am espousing. This kind of argument is disappointing from someone that I consider to be a good evangelical scholar.

However, these hesitations aside, I do think that the article is helpful, albeit not flawless, as a conservative evangelical orientation to the debate and I am pleased that we are getting the attention of important thinkers and authors like Gerald McDemott (whose book on what evangelicals can learn from world religions I still consider to be very helpful indeed).


Chris Tilling said…
Yes, and yes. I was most troubled by his use of the word "justice" as well as his conclusion. I think you have been very generous with your response.
Alex Smith said…
Thanks heaps for taking the time to response to the article! I'm also glad you were able to do so graciously.
Cindy Skillman said…
Well said -- thanks for your kindness and your perspective. I hope this will serve to stir up at least some interest in others to read further and hear the rest of the story.
Cindy Skillman said…
Well said -- thanks for your kindness and your perspective. I hope this will serve to stir up at least some interest in others to read further and hear the rest of the story.
Kevin Miller said…
You were far more gracious in your critique than I was, Robin.
Bob Wilson said…
Your response is better than mine. I too appreciate your affirmation of Dr. McDermott's interest and contributions to evangelicalism, yet noting the disappointment that even a scholar aware of the literature seems to have many misconceptions that fail to address the actual case for evangelical universalism.
Anonymous said…
The definition of justice that I have been using is "making wrong things right," or put even more simply, "rightness." In other words, God's justice doesn't need retribution at all, because retribution doesn't fix anything that was wrong in the first place. For God to enact justice, he heals what was broken and reconciles what was estranged. This is true biblical justice. So God's justice and God's love are not in conflict at all. His love is what makes things right. Ultimate justice is only done when all is well.
James Goetz said…
Robin, You are a gentleman and a scholar. Peace, Jim
Caleb Fogg said…
Robin, Dr. McDermott has responded to you and Tom Talbott in the comment section below his article.
Robin Parry said…
Oh yes, so he has. Thanks for pointing that out Caleb. I'll let readers consider his arguments and see how persuasive they find them. I have no interest in an interminable back-and-forth (nor, I imagine, does Gerald McDermott) so I will leave it to stand as it is (though, of course, there is a fair bit that could be said in reply).
Robin Parry said…
For those who are interested, here is Gerald McDermott's reply to me.

"Lest anyone think I am not interested in critical feedback, I have chosen to enter this discussion to respond to the two most distinguished proponents of universalism, Dr. Robin Parry and Professor Thomas Talbott. But I am afraid this is all I have time for, and so beg the forgiveness of those who hope to hear from me further down this

First of all, I want to thank Dr Parry and Prof Talbott for their graciousness in their responses. We scholars who differ all know, I trust, that it is Jesus Christ who saves us, not our theology. Nevertheless, theology is important, and some theological differences, such as this one I believe, are very important.

On misrepresenting the Orthodox position, it is one thing to claim, as does Ramelli, that there were thinkers in the early church in the East who espoused it, as I myself acknowledged in the article, and quite another to suggest misrepresentation in my statement that “for most of its
history, [Orthodoxy’s] official documents have taught two destinations for humans: heaven and hell.” Parry does not deny this.

On Thomas Talbott “assuming” or arguing for universalism. Yes, the first word is not strictly accurate. But when I first described his case, I outlined his argument briefly in three stages. So I do not think this is a “complete failure to engage [his] case.” I explained why I think this philosophical argument does not work, using Walls and my own reasoning. This can be helpful to Calvinists not just Arminians because there is no supposition in Calvinist thought that God will make all freely
accept the gospel, only that He can do whatever he wants. Such a formidable Calvinist as Edwards was
familiar with universalism and rejected it principally because he was convinced that Scripture was overwhelmingly clear, especially in Jesus’ assertions to that effect, that there would be final and not just temporary separation.

Mr. Parry rejects my charge that he pulls apart love and justice and sentimentalizes love. But then he says eternal hell “cannot be squared with holy love.” What is that if not separating love from justice, because of the assumption that love could never tolerate eternal separation? Where does that assumption come from? I dare say that assumption
was rare in the biblical worlds if not absent completely. I am glad that Parry says “divine love is compatible with eschatological wrath.” But then by rejecting the eternal dimension to wrath—and implicitly the eternal determination of some souls to reject God’s love—he by my lights goes beyond the biblical testimony. Of course he will say that the biblical testimony supports his case, and that’s where we disagree. Fair enough. Let readers compare his arguments to those of such as the authors of 'Hell Under Fire.' It still seems to be the case that the idea that divine love could never tolerate eternal separation is foreign to the biblical mindset but illustrative of modern

Mr. Parry is displeased that I did not deal with his
thousands of words explicating Revelation and Philippians 2, and he does not deal directly with my few words on the same. Nor on 2 Thessalonians 1 suggesting non-restorative justice.

On mission, yes, Dr. Parry argues for the need for conversion to avoid remedial suffering. But he also
teaches that conversion in this life or not, everyone eventually will be saved. My response is that while it need not undermine mission and evangelism, it will, for the reasons I gave in my article. Some liberal Protestants also endorsed remedial suffering due to God’s wrath, but as the movement endorsed the bottom line of universal salvation, it concluded overall that conversion is not really necessary after all, especially if the non-Christian is pursuing God in another religion or truth generally."
Giles said…
How do Calvinists accept that God can bring people to him freely? If they accept that they reject total depravity and irresistable grace and aren't Calvinists. I know Calvinist's say "we only reject libertarian free will" and thus pose as compatibilists (believing determinism is compatible with a form of freedom) but it really won't do. Philosophical compatibilists believe it is predetermined whether we choose good or evil but they believe people's wills sometimes choose good and sometimes evil. So the talk of choice against a deterministic background makes sense. Calvinists say we can only "choose" evil unless our will is overridden, in which case we can only choose good. Talk of choice ceases to make sense if we don't have at least two options.

Popular Posts